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Estonia Calling: History, Food, Nature

Tallinn, EstoniaEstonia is an Eastern European country that shares a border with Russia, but not many happy sentiments, as Obama’s recent speech in Tallinn, its capitol, reinforced. Envied for its location on the Baltic Sea, Estonia has been overrun by Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Russians, including the Soviets who rescued the country from the Nazis only to outstay their visit until the famed Singing Revolution in 1991. Estonia is now a leading member of the EU, and attuned, instead, to its Nordic neighbors with a similar clean sense of design, love of nature, ebullient wit and feisty spirit and it’s a country worth exploring. And all those invasions make it a fascinating place to visit.

Domed churches are a familiar site in Estonia cities.

Domed churches are a familiar site in Estonia’s cities.

The airport, dressed in bright, spicy colors, is only three miles from the Old City, still bound by medieval walls spliced by guard towers (one named Fat Margaret). Within lies a UNESCO-protected storybook setting of cobblestone streets hugging Gothic manor houses, centuries-old churches whose spires still pierce the sky, and Town Square, the hub of the city for 800 years. Here an historic pharmacy still stands where it once dispensed roasted bees, fish eyes and cats’ blood as remedies, but those neighboring medieval mansions now house classy crafts boutiques and cafes with umbrella-topped tables.

The cool, clean architecture in Estonia resembles Norway or Sweden.

The cool, clean architecture in Estonia resembles Norway or Sweden.

“It’s a Medieval Disneyland,” laughs our guide, Uve, pointing out the 11th-century Great Guild Hall and its neighbor, the Church of the Holy Spirit—oldest in town—where I later return for a free organ concert.

But this is not a cloying throwback to Ye Good Old Days: Tallinn buzzes with energy and creative juices that vault it ahead of its neighbors—the inventors of Skype (as they’re eager to remind us), with free Wi-Fi everywhere; designer of duds and home gear ready-for-their-close-ups in glossy magazines; creators of forward art and music and cuisine and whatever else you care to name.

Indeed, the most popular attraction is the newly-launched Seaplane Harbor, housed in the 1916 hangars built by Russian Tsar Nicholas to defend St. Petersburg. Hands-on, interactive displays explore what’s underwater, from the earliest shipwreck ever found to a World War II submarine (climb right in) and torpedo simulator (ready, aim…), to vessels atop the water, from a primitive dugout to a motorboat from the Thirties, a seaplane, and defense cannon.

For a panorama of the Old Town, visitors can claim a bird’s-eye-view via a brand-new, tethered helium balloon. Those spires you spot belong to St. Alexander Nevsky, the bulb-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral, while the spare white steeple is St. Olaf’s, in the 14th century the tallest building in the world. Medieval St. Nicholas now serves as a museum for medieval art, including the admonitory “Dance of Death.” The town’s history museum celebrates Estonia’s spirit of survival, as 10 foreign powers turn turns occupying the country over the last 800 years—most recently the Soviets, who conducted mass deportations to Siberia via cattle cars, as the somber Museum of Occupation testifies.

Squares like this Town Hall Square in Tallinn are favorite gathering places for visitors and residents alike.

Squares like this Town Hall Square in Tallinn are favorite gathering places for visitors and residents alike.

During the Cold War, the Viru Hotel served as headquarters for the feared KGB. A visit to the 23rd-floor inner sanctum displays ashtrays bugged with microphones, the hotline phone direct to Moscow. Earlier Russians, then Soviets, used the bastion of tunnels surrounding the Old Town as prison, then bomb shelter. Today, we follow a guide underground to spy where punks hid out from their oppressors and, post-freedom, the homeless in their squats.
Back in the daylight of Catherine’s Passage, we troll through working artisans’ shops for designer garb in leather, wool and linen. I overload my suitcase with treasures from the design collective Eesti Esindus.

Food: Tradition and Beyond

The city of Tallinn’s sense of style extends to its kitchens. Hotel breakfasts could double as Sunday brunch—cold cuts, cheeses, marinated fish, picked veg (including pumpkin), always tomatoes, always cucumbers, plenty of fresh pastries and homemade jams, tubs of yogurt. Then come the hot dishes, from oatmeal to blini to scrambled eggs with feisty sausages.

Rustic breads are part of everyday eating in Estonia.

Rustic breads are part of everyday eating in Estonia.

The modern restaurants Noa (as in Noah’s Ark)—the first purpose-built dining site in the city— celebrates seafood aside the sea, with pure and simple fare such as salted whitefish with cucumbers and dill sauce or pike-perch with new potatoes.

Nejkid, rated in the Top 50 of Estonia’s restaurants, sports cosmopolitan renditions of ultra-local products, as in starters like salmon tartare or feta cheese cream with marinated beets and radishes sprinkled with pumpkin seeds. Starters are followed by smoked duck with rhubarb; lamb with red cabbage-cherry sauce and a pea-mint salad; and moose steak with blueberries. The dessert winner: rhubarb and strawberries partnered with strawberry-mint sorbet, cream cheese with berries, and muesli crumbs.

Fish--smoked, pickled, grilled--plays a large part in Estonia dining.

Fish–smoked, pickled, grilled–plays a large part in Estonia dining.

Leib stays close to home with an Estonian beef filet aside local carrots and chanterelles; quail with zucchini-green bean salad; home-smoked trout with warm-vegetable salad and yogurt; elk sausage with mashed potatoes and onion gravy; or Estonian beef with local carrots sauced with chanterelles. And for dessert, crème brulee with black bread; red currant marshmallow with cookie crumble; or goat’s curd foam with blueberry ice cream.

Kaks Kokka (“two cooks”) treated us to smoked herring salad with salted cucumbers and homegrown tomatoes; a chilled pea-cucumber soup with crayfish tails; and dessert of strawberries, cherries and mint ice cream. Or choose smoked eel mousse with fennel seed chip and borsch gel; and elk with pickled ramson, trout roe, smoked egg yolk and moss (yes, moss). Or the wild herb soup featuring sunroot, nettles and goutweed. How about roast cod with ash-baked potatoes, sour cream, spring onions and a smoky butter sauce? It all deliciously blends old and new flavors.

Many of the dishes we had in Estonia were deliciously hearty.

Many of the dishes we had in Estonia were deliciously hearty.

Nature Abounds

Estonians are passionate about nature. Find it at its purest in Lahemaa National Park, an hour from Tallinn, where bog-walking is a year-round sport. Strap on plastic “snowshoes” to bounce your way across the spongy surface. Then reward yourself with lunch at seaside MerMer, served summertime in a converted barn and in winter, aside a cozy fire by two escapees from the city who grow and prepare feasts that segue from steaming homemade bread and cured salmon salad to chicken with potatoes and chanterelles and a white-chocolate cheesecake.

Bog walking is a popular past time.

Bog walking is a popular past time.

Estonians adore the Baltic Sea—especially the skein of islands dropped like pancake batter not far from the coast. Hop a ferry to Muhu, two hours from the city, and Nautse Mihkli, the oldest farm on the island, whose thatched cottage urban emigres Ingrem and Kaler Randjoe restored to offer cooking classes and meals straight from the woods and water, like our feast of pike quenelles, redbuck tenderloin, and beet ice cream with blueberry panna cotta. Their philosophy: Cook local (especially game) and organic. Guest cottages beckon. So does the sauna. Nearby, in another woodland cottage, Ea and Stephen Green not only make and sell enticingly-scented organic soaps, but also teach visitors the skill.

Nature, including forests and plenty of birds, are another surprising part of Estonia.

Nature, including forests and plenty of birds, are another surprising part of Estonia.

Muhu is the anteroom, connected by a bridge to Saarenaa, the country’s largest island, whose capitol city, Kuressare (which hardly earns that fancy title) boasts a main street studded with way-too-enticing regional crafts shops leading to a medieval castle fortress guarding the shoreline and—the town’s forte—spas galore.

We circle back to Muhu for the grand finale—an overnight at Padaste Manor, which host, Martin Breuer, painstakingly restored from centuries of crumbling for the express purpose of coddling his guests. Its restaurant, Alexander, has been voted “best in Estonia” three years running for its focus on Nordic Islands fare. Its degustation menu (choose 3, 5, 7, or 9 courses) led off with the island’s beef tartare with green tomatoes and green onion mayo. Then, Baltic needlefish with baby carrots and seabuckthorn, followed by local roe deer with glazed beets and black currants. Finally, a cheese course (rod lober) with dandelion and sorrel, ushering in carrot and seabuckthorn sorbet, then climaxing with garden thyme ice cream with red currant and Muhu honey, all devoured with gusto under a chandelier composed of kitchen tools.

Lovely food like this beautiful mushroom dish are part of Estonia's culinary offerings.

Lovely food like this beautiful mushroom dish are part of Estonia’s culinary offerings.

Says host Martin, come here to chill out. “We have no waterfalls, no mountains, just the innocence of the islands where nature calls to you. Embrace it.” — Story and Photos by Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor, Photos courtesy Estonia Tourism

For information, visit www.visitestonia. com

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Carla Waldemar

Carla Waldemar of Minneapolis, NM, is a longtime food and travel writer. She has served as a food editor for Better Homes and Gardens and senior editor for Cuisine magazines and is the Twin Cities editor of the annual Zagat Survey.